Hell of a holiday

The pandemic has all but crushed our travel dreams, but there’s still a way out

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I’m ensnared by travel ads every time I unlock my phone. Hey, I’m no noob at online advertising, but the timing of the suggestions is creepy. They read my mind, down to the exact term I’m trying to socially distance from. Vacation. 

The doomed word echoes in my head. A sound unfamiliar and exotic, even unreasonably unattainable, flung into a mass grave along with its many synonyms we once knew and loved.  

The pandemic scuttled our family’s summer vacation plans. Railway tickets were cancelled in haste and refunds promptly credited. On the other hand, the airline handed me a Hobson’s Choice, inviting me to select between two genius innovations of creative marketing: I could either forfeit 85% of what I had paid to cancellation charges, GST and sundry levies, or I could avail of a no-questions-asked no-refund policy. Since I had jumped the gun in panic and cancelled my tickets before travel restrictions were announced, customer support graciously offered me a third option — a credit shell. 

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My money, I was informed soothingly, would be safely parked for twelve months (accumulating interest — although this detail they were careful to omit). In case I wished to fly with them again — as I no doubt would, because I couldn’t wait to wallow in the ethereal adventure of being packed into an airborne aluminium can brimming with mouth-breathing coronavirus dispensers — all I had to do was hit them up and they’d let me use up the credit shell. 

That simple? Conditions apply, I was hastily cautioned. I could only redeem this empty promise if I were booking tickets for the same passengers whose tickets I had cancelled. I marvelled at this calculated and inescapable customer trap. I wrote back to ask if the credit shell would apply to the cargo transport of my dead body in case I kicked the bucket in the interim. Overlooking my sarcasm, the airline’s automated response system sent me their detailed terms and conditions, in print so fine that I considered buying a microscope to read it. But microscopes were out of stock, probably because everyone was trying to find the coronavirus.

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Instead, I purchased a telescope. To observe the comet, you know. 

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As it happened, the celestial traveller NEOWISE happened to swing by this side of the solar system in July. The daughter and I clambered onto the terrace at dusk, swatting mosquitoes as we peered through the dazzling haze of light pollution. On the western horizon, a gigantic bank of thunderclouds obscured our hopes. Tomorrow, we reassured each other. As if on cue, the monsoon rolled in that night. Clear skies took a long leave of absence. At least someone was taking a vacation, I grumbled. But my ill-timed telescope, now gathering dust and using up space, gnawed another hole in our travel budget.

The ads rubbed it in. I was about to unsubscribe to one of the three dozen travel newsletters that litter my inbox when I got a prompt. ‘Travel isn’t going anywhere,’ went the craftily worded headline, tempting me with an array of salubrious resorts in remote, secluded locales, each begging me to ‘isolate’ with them. I daydreamed, my thoughts wandering to that sizable sum locked away in the airline’s credit shell. But the reverie ended abruptly with vivid images of me in a hospital gown, hooked up to a ventilator.

Travel is now a luxury truly for the privileged. If you can afford to charter a private jet to a remote island staffed with sanitised robots that do your every bidding, you’re in business. Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, airlines and hotel chains have filed for bankruptcy protection. Bucket-list travel has met with an ironic end. Also consigned to history are big fat family weddings and the annual pilgrimage with the clan. As is the middle-class jet-setting short vacation complete with budget-airline cheap seats and duty-free loot, considering that travellers are now required to self-quarantine both ways. This inevitably demands meatier travel budgets and longer periods of time away from work, both untenable unless you have plenty of time and money stashed away. Of course, you can work while vacationing if that’s your idea of a holiday. 

Driving holidays evoke terrifying visions of picking up cooties at public restrooms or restaurants. Until we’re vaxxed, we’re left with limited options like exploring the neighbourhood by bicycle or hanging out at restaurants in PPE suits. Back in the day, travellers rode solo and carried their own plates and cutlery, which doesn’t seem like a bad idea now. 

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By these depressing estimates, only one group of people is fit to travel — those who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered from it. Discounting the rather slim chance of reinfection, they can go wherever the heck they want. Maybe it’s worth a shot (no pun intended).

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

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